Dark costumes, dark lighting, dark subject: romance is hollow, love is impermanent and fickle, lust and deception rule. What is a good tenor to do but beat his heart to a sweaty pulp with musical accompaniment? Of course he must rely on his muse, his friend and anchor, to point him back to poetry and the metaphysical.
Director Angelo Gobbato has poured this 19th century opera through a fine sieve of modern references, (‘Edgar Allan Poe, Roald Dahl and American Horror Story’, says Gobbato) and the music gets caught on the wiry threads of alcohol, human engineering, fraudulent doctors, and a stage so crammed with detail it is distracting. The first act had me wondering which way was front, who was important and why all those girls were hanging about. But the rich arias and duets pour through and are satisfying, despite some weird theatrical devices (a jar full of eyes – from Roald Dahl’s cookery book perhaps? – and a tinfoil platform over the orchestra pit, where the best action happens).
The staging has the orchestra at the back, like latecomers who are crammed into the courtyard, and this made me listen for them more attentively. Occasionally we see them on a screen, and can recognise conductor Kamal Khan’s distinctive profile. Based around a scaffolding frame, Michael Mitchell’s set includes Banksy-esque graffitied walls, distorted triptych mirrors, and a projector screen, while movable props range from fully-stocked bar cabinets and a vase full of white lilies to acrobats’ hoops and medical drips hanging from the theatre flies. With lighting by Fahiem Baardien, it moves swiftly and seamlessly between the bizarre and the surreal.
There are three stories within this story, all being told at the bar during an opera show (a typical self-referential touch from Offenbach). Hoffman (Tshepo Moagi) is a poet unlucky in love: first he falls in love with a mechanical doll, Olympia, whom he views through magical spectacles, which make her appear human. He is spectacularly booted around the stage for his trouble. He captures the audience with his rich voice and sensitive modulation, and so has our unconditional sympathy.
Maudé Montierre as Olympia on opening night had drawn the short straw with the costumes. Supposedly dressed as a dominatrix, she looked more like a wetsuited diver who had lost a fight with some kelp. While Montierre’s voice is very suited to the doll’s showy aria, she was a little subdued or perhaps not stretching herself to the limit, as she has performed better in a recent Spanish concert. Her portrayal of the doll’s winding down and needing to be wound up again was vivid; the modern version of ‘winding up with a key’ is here a sort of taser or stun gun which is first introduced as if it has been ensconced in her body all along. The lewd re-starting of the doll made me uncomfortable and I thought it was unnecessarily humiliating for Montierre herself and perhaps for some of the other cast members. Indeed the sexually explicit movements throughout the act sometimes caused the audience to disengage, settling down only in the second act.
Hoffman’s second love story is about Antonia, a frail young opera singer who dies while singing a satisfyingly beautiful aria. Soprano Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi has a sure fluidity, with subtle expression and tenderness, exactly what the audience had come to hear: the outpourings of the heart. Again, Moagi was deeply pleasing. Special mention must be made of the deaf household servant, Frantz (played by Siphesihle Madena) who was both funny and convincing, and he also has a very interesting voice.
Hoffman’s third courtship is to Giulietta, a casino entertainer who steals his reflection, only to die by accidentally drinking poison. Violina Anguelov is, as always, confident and quite special as the manipulative Giulietta, her dark looks and red scarf matching her dramatic singing and natural expression in the role.
But it is Moagi who is the best reason to see this show. He embodies Hoffman with nuance, continuity, and the passion of his adoration of the three women. Karen van der Walt as Hoffman’s muse, who masquerades as his friend Nicklauss, is a good partner in terms of matching Moagi’s quality and going beyond it with her individual colour. In the epilogue to the three stories, she reveals herself as the female muse and encourages Hoffman to stick to poetry as it is more enduring than love.
The dancers, choreographed by Sean Bovim, add an expressive and highly watchable element, especially those lithe young male acrobats. See if you can spot the dancer pulling the revolving stage around with an invisible rope, for the curtain call.
Angelo Gobbato has clearly had fun with the modernising of The Tales of Hoffman though some may feel that a few of the gestures in Act I are inappropriate and aversive rather than erotic. Overall this show is good entertainment, and despite being sprinkled with more disturbing orgiastic gyrations after the first act, the UCT Opera School and Cape Town Opera’s production is a satisfying and entertaining spectacle, with eye-catching staging, ear-pleasing singing and impressive acting from a cast of young talent.
Pauline de Villiers
The Writing Room
UCT Opera School and Cape Town Opera’s production of The Tales of Hoffman runs at the Artscape Theatre 24 – 29 November 2012.